Time seems to fly by at an increasingly faster clip as I get older, and it’s hard to believe we’re now at the end of the second year of the third decade of the 21st Century. That means it’s time for my annual year-end list of my Top 100 favorite songs. As a music blogger, I’m exposed to a tremendous amount of music. In addition to all the artists and bands I already follow, I often receive 5-10 submissions a day from artists, PR reps and labels for possible reviews, so I listen to a lot of albums, EPs and singles from a lot of artists and bands over the course of a year. Nevertheless, I realize I’ve heard only a fraction of all the singles and albums released in 2021. (I get enough proof of this just by reading other bloggers’ year-end best-of lists, where in some cases I literally haven’t heard a single one of their song or album picks.)
Consequently, my list includes only songs I know, and I’m certain there are likely many great ones that should be on this list, except that I’ve never heard them! That said, among the thousands of songs I did hear in 2021, there were many outstanding ones, and it frustrates me to have to cull them down to only 100, omitting quite a few that I really like. It’s also tough ranking them, because a song at #40 isn’t necessarily better than a song at #70, but rank them I must.
As with every year, in 2021 we had to say goodbye to far too many legendary musicians, including Gerry Marsden (Gerry & the Pacemakers), Phil Spector, Jimmie Rodgers, Sophie, Mary Wilson, Lloyd Price, B.J. Thomas, Dusty Hill (ZZ Top), Chick Corea, Tom T Hall, Don Everly, Charlie Watts, Graeme Edge (Moody Blues), Steve Bronski (Bronski Beat) and Michael Nesmith.
A final caveat I feel I must mention every year: Many bloggers and critics include songs released during the year in question on their year-end lists, whereas Billboard and many other charts generally include songs in the year they were ‘hits’ on said charts, which is what I prefer. Many of the songs on this list were released in 2021, however, a number of them were released in 2020, but didn’t ‘peak’ until 2021. Also, because there are always a few songs that overlap from one year to the next, like Billboard, I include those songs on lists for both years if they spent enough time on the charts in each year. I always wrestle with how to rank them, as well as whether to list them in only one year or two. I suppose that at the end of the day it’s all silliness, but this is the way I choose to do it. The songs in this Top 100 that also appeared in my Top 100 Songs of 2020 list are indicated with an asterisk *.
This year, I felt ambitious, and have written a narrative for the top 30 songs on the list. I wish I could write one for all 100 tracks, but it would take me forever to get this post done! As always, I’ve created a Spotify playlist, which is included at the end of the post. Hopefully you’ll find some of your own personal favorites on it.
1. FIRE – Two Feet
Regular readers of my blog know I’m a huge fan of Two Feet (aka Bill Dess), and he ruled my music charts this year like the Beatles did back in the mid 1960s. He’s been my favorite artist for the past few years and I love all his music. I think he’s one of the finest guitarists making music today, and I’ve written about him numerous times and have seen him live in concert twice. In addition to his brilliant concept album Max Maco is Dead Right? (which I reviewed this past April), the prolific Brooklyn, NY-based musician also dropped an impressive string of fantastic singles throughout the year, as well as collaborative singles with Gryffin, SHAED, Sub Urban and grandson. Seven have appeared on my Weekly Top 30 in 2021, six of which are included on this year-end list, and four of them, including “Fire”, have reached #1. It’s also meant that he’s continuously had at least one song on my chart every week since November 2020!
Released this past January, “Fire” is a sultry little masterpiece that slowly builds to a scorching crescendo, befitting the song’s title. Two Feet lays down a bluesy guitar riff that sounds like a slowed-down version of “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, while his trusted keyboardist/programmer Geoffrey Hufford layers soaring cinematic orchestral synths over a smoldering deep bass groove. Two Feet sings with a breathy, impassioned falsetto as he croons to a lover of his intense, all-consuming desire: “Darling, You call my name / I like the games you play / Charming, My love for you / Burning, I feel it too./ Fire, ooh I say.” My love for this song was further verified by Spotify Wrapped, which showed it was my most-played song of 2021. The song is one of three tracks from Max Maco is Dead Right? on this list.
2. MINE FOREVER – Lord Huron
Besides Two Feet, the other act that most strongly resonated with me in 2021 was indie folk-rock band Lord Huron. Their uniquely beautiful music is a blend of folk, western, rock and roll, pop, surf rock and new age, and has been described by a few music writers as evoking the ‘high-lonesome’ sound of such legendary acts as The Band and Neil Young, as well as newer acts like Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket. The most striking features of their sound are the lush twangy and shimmery guitars, backed by stirring orchestral strings, and lead singer Ben Schneider’s achingly beautiful vocals, which have an arresting and heartfelt vulnerability. For me, listening to their music is an almost religious experience, transporting me to a dreamy, faraway place out in the open West. The cinematic quality of their music makes many of their songs perfect candidates for the soundtrack of a sweeping Western epic. “Mine Forever” is from their gorgeous, critically acclaimed fourth album Long Lost, which is my personal pick for best album of the year.
3. DON’T BRING ME DOWN – Two Feet
Two Feet is back with his darkly beautiful and mesmerizing “Don’t Bring Me Down”, the second of his six songs on this list. It was also his 8th song to reach #1 on my Weekly Top 30, where it recently spent four weeks at that position. The captivating song features a massive, floor-rattling bass drop at the end of each verse that covers me in chills. His beguiling echoed vocals are understated yet powerful as he pleads with a woman for whom he’s give up a lot to love him back and save him from loneliness: “The darkened skyline, outside my room. A kingdom that I gave up too soon, To be with you. To be with you. I think about that most everyday. My life I think it’s, it’s going to pass me by. So love me girl. This lonely world won’t bring me down.” The video, which was created by Allison Michael and features vintage 50’s film footage, nicely complements the noir vibe of the song.
4. CAN YOU FEEL THE SUN – MISSIO
I’ve also been a massive fan of Austin, Texas-based duo MISSIO for the past several years, and their beautiful song “I See You”, from their magnificent album The Darker the Weather // The Better the Man, was my #1 song of 2019. With the combined talents of singer-songwriter and producer Matthew Brue and songwriter/producer and instrumentalist David Butler, their edgy and eclectic sound is a glorious mix of gritty alternative electronic rock, hip hop and dreamy emo vibes. Then there’s Matthew’s distinctive vocals that register in the higher octaves just below a falsetto, giving them a unique, instantly recognizable sound. “Can You Feel The Sun“ was released in September 2020, but topped my Weekly Top 30 for three weeks this past February. I love the bold cinematic arrangement, lush otherworldly synths and strummed acoustic guitar, all melding together to create a truly stunning and inspirational track. The introspective lyrics speak of reassessing one’s prejudices and shortcomings, and trying to be more open-minded and accepting: “Below the willow tree is where I hide the darkest parts of me. They’re hiding underneath the broken lies that I just still believe. Below the willow tree is where I sit and hate on my enemies. I drown ’em in my dreams, I think it’s me who needs some humility.”
5. CAN I BELIEVE YOU – Fleet Foxes *
Speaking of beautiful songs, Fleet Foxes’ wistful “Can I Believe You” is one of the most beautiful on this entire list. From the Seattle band’s exquisite fourth album Shore, the song was also released in the fall of 2020, and ranks #24 on my Top 100 Songs of 2020 list. But it spent the first three weeks of January at #1, so is also one of my favorite songs of 2021. According to Songfacts, “Can I Believe You” was the first song that band frontman Robin Pecknold started to write for Shore, though he struggled with it for a while. He stated he began with the ‘Can I believe you’ line, with its memorable melody and chord progression, but didn’t know whether it was a verse or chorus. Also, the lyrics were originally about an untrustworthy person, but as he thought more about his own anxieties with letting people get close to him, the song “turned into this headbanger about trust issues and it was funny to me because it’s such a fun song,” he explained. “It made sense for a song about trust to have the verse function like a chorus and the chorus like a bridge; the whole thing is slightly upside down.” Another interesting aspect of the song is that its choral backing vocals are comprised of over 400 different voice clips compiled from recordings submitted by Pecknold’s Instagram followers. The album’s producer-engineer Beatriz Artola spent days editing them together and cleaning them up into one big choral bed.
6. SHY AWAY – twenty øne piløts
twenty øne piløts have been my favorite band since 2015. Two of their songs – “Tear In My Heart” and “Stressed Out”, both from their phenomenal album Blurryface – topped my year-end charts for 2015 and 2016, respectively, and four of their singles from their follow-up fifth album Trench reached #1 on my Weekly Top 30 in 2018 and 2019. They released their much-anticipated sixth album Scaled And Icy in May 2021, and though I’m not as enamored with it as I am with their previous albums Trench, Blurryface and Vessel (all masterpieces in my not so humble opinion) I do love two of its tracks: “Shy Away” and “Saturday”, both of which appear on this year-end list.
The bouncy and upbeat “Shy Away” was written by Tyler Joseph and produced mainly in isolation in his home studio as a kind of tutorial for his younger brother Jay on all the stages of a creating a song (writing, composing, producing). Tyler also more deeply explored the electric guitar for the song, an instrument he’d barely used prior to recording the duo’s 2020 hit “Level of Concern”. Fun fact: The album’s title is a play on “scaled back and isolated”, reflecting music produced during the pandemic, but is also an anagram of “Clancy is dead”, in reference to the protagonist of their previous album Trench.
7. NOT DEAD YET – Lord Huron
The second of two songs by the enigmatic Lord Huron on this list, “Not Dead Yet” was the lead single from their gorgeous album Long Lost. Not much I can add that I didn’t already elaborate upon in my write-up of “Mine Forever”, except to restate that I love this band’s music. The lyrics seem to speak to a person grappling with their mortality, but knowing they still have something to contribute: “All messed up with nowhere to go, I stare at myself in the mirror alone. It’s hard to make friends when you’re half in the grave, but I ain’t dead yet. And I’ve got something to say.”
8. DRIVERS LICENSE – Olivia Rodrigo
“Drivers License”, the stirring debut single by young Southern California singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo (who was not yet 18 when the song was released in January) is the highest-ranking song on my list that was also a mainstream #1 hit. The lead single from her debut album Sour, the song received universal critical acclaim and topped music charts in 25 countries, including the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, where it spent eight consecutive weeks at #1. It’s an achingly beautiful piano ballad with strong bedroom pop, indie pop, and power pop elements. Rodrigo has stated the song was influenced by the music of Taylor Swift, Lorde and Gracie Abrams. The moving lyrics address feelings of desolation and heartache after a breakup, in which Rodrigo laments about finally getting her drivers license, but heartbroken as she drives past her former boyfriend’s house, thinking of what could have been: “And I know we weren’t perfect, but I’ve never felt this way for no one. Oh, and I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay, now that I’ve gone. I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me. ‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street.” The song features a spine-tingling crescendo moment when she plaintively croons “ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh” in the chorus after the words “‘Cause I still fucking love you, babe“. That moment was parodied on an episode of Saturday Night Live.
9. STARGAZING – The Neighbourhood
Ever since the release of their gorgeous monster hit “Sweater Weather” in 2013 (which ranks #4 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s), Southern California alt-rock band The Neighbourhood have been a favorite of mine. I love their sound, and especially love the beautiful singing voice of the band’s handsome, heavily-tattooed lead singer Jesse Rutherford. I’ve also loved just about every song they’ve ever released, and am happy to see them still flourishing after ten years together. “Stargazing”, their dreamy song of love, hope and optimism, was featured on the deluxe version of their fourth album Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones, a concept album addressing Rutherford’s doubts about the band’s identity and his personal struggles with social media addiction – a condition to which I can strongly relate. He’s stated that the album was heavily inspired by the story and style of David Bowie’s alter-ego Ziggy Stardust and his band ‘The Spiders from Mars’: “Before we started this album, I asked myself what my opinion was about our music, our band, and our fans, and I realized I didn’t really know—and that scared the shit out of me. I got off the internet for about nine months and stopped ingesting everybody else’s opinion. Bowie was Ziggy, and Ziggy was a character very addicted to cocaine—and I would say that Chip is addicted to the internet, a product of addiction from social media for so many years.”
The sweet video shows the band as their alter-egos Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones, and features cameos by Lana Del Rey, Blake Griffin, Jaden Smith, Benny Blanco, Devon Carlson, Mac DeMarco and Alexa Demie.
10. DEVIL – Two Feet
When it comes to making music, Two Feet can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Like many of his songs, “Devil” features a chest-thumping deep bass groove and smoldering sensual vibe, creating an arresting and indelible mood that hits you right in the feels. He should seriously write film soundtracks, and I believe I read in one of his tweets a while back that he’s doing just that. One of the people commenting on the YouTube video for this song wrote: “This song makes me wanna buy a 1962 Corvette and drive around LA with a cigar in my mouth, blasting this song on the highest volume so everyone sees.” My sentiments are a bit different, but I too want to blast this song so that everyone around me feels it as strongly as I do. The mysterious industrial synths, sharp percussion and Two Feet’s seductive throbbing guitars are fantastic, and I love his sultry, vulnerable vocals as he croons to a lover that, even though she’s a cruel, heartless devil, he just can’t quit her: “Every time that you fuck with me I wanna let you go. But I can’t cause I don’t really know how to let you know. 1, I feel nothing. 2, I got something. 3, I need you near. Your the only one that never fools around here so, you, won’t ever break.”
11. LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN – Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic
When you combine the considerable talents and charisma of two great artists like Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, you’re bound to get musical fireworks. Toss in a throwback early 70s R&B vibe into the mix, and the result is a soulful breath of fresh air in the form of “Leave the Door Open”. With sexy but lighthearted lyrics about setting the stage for an evening of romance, the song was a huge #1 hit that appealed to young and old alike, a rarity in music these days. A match made in heaven, the two joined forces almost as a joke they hatched on the road in 2017, when Anderson .Paak was the opening act for Bruno Mars on the European leg of his 24K Magic World Tour. The two also collaborated with Nile Rodgers and Guy Lawrence for Chic’s album It’s About Time, and also on Paak’s album Ventura.
12. WELCOME TO THE PARTY – Jack Droppers & the Best Intentions
Without question, the most heartwarming song on this list is “Welcome to the Party” by Grand Rapids, Michigan-based indie rock band Jack Droppers & the Best Intentions. One of the singles featured on their third studio album Dad Rock, the song was inspired by the birth of Jack’s first child, and addresses the innocence of a newborn as they’re brought into this world, and how showering them with love from the start will hopefully make them grow up to be a loving person in return. Jack elaborates: “’Welcome to the Party’ invites this child into a world that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible, and often both at the same time. This song is perhaps the most personal song on the record (it’s the only time I’ve ever had to stop recording vocals cause I was crying big old dad tears). It was written for Naomi before she was born but was also written for you as we eventually step out of this strange season and begin to ask, ‘what does it mean to be alive?’ The song (like the record as a whole) arrives at this question and offers no quick answers but the steady refrain ‘remember you are so loved, so you can always sow love‘.”
It’s a beautiful song from a musical standpoint as well, opening with a stirring four-part vocal harmony backing Jack’s lovely, heartfelt vocals that reminded me of The Killers’ Brandon Flowers. Like Flowers, Jack has an emotive vocal style with a strong vulnerability that’s quite endearing. The melody and lush instrumentals are gorgeous too, with jangly guitars accompanied by strings, mellotron, vibraphone and trumpet. I love it, and to this day I still get a big lump in my throat every time I hear it.
13. WE ARE BETWEEN – Modest Mouse
After a six year semi-hiatus between albums, during which they released three stand alone singles in 2019, beloved and quirky Portland, Oregon-based alt-rock band Modest Mouse returned in 2021 with their seventh studio album The Golden Casket. It’s lead single, the rousing anthem “We Are Between”, was one of the best songs of the year, and went to #1 on the Billboard Alternative Airplay and Adult Alternative charts, as well as my own Weekly Top 30. I love the song’s driving melody, highlighted by a mix of grungy and twangy guitars and front man Isaac Brock’s signature raspy vocals. According to Songfacts, the song was inspired by Brock’s pondering how fortunate we humans are to exist on this planet Earth. He explained to Apple Music: “It’s just about how lucky we are to get to live in an ocean of oxygen, how lucky we are just to even get between a rock and a hard place. Fuck. There’s a limit to feeling good about life on earth, I’m sure, but most of the time, it shouldn’t be there.”
14. TRANSPARENTSOUL – WILLOW featuring Travis Barker
One of the most exciting songs of 2021 is “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l”, wherein 20-year-old WILLOW (the daughter of actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, for those who don’t already know) launches a full-throated tirade against fake and duplicitous people with scathing lyrics and raging guitars, fortified with the pummeling drumbeats of ubiquitous Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, who seems to be just about everyone’s go-to drummer these days. The bombastic song was the lead single from her fourth solo studio album Lately I Feel Everything, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
15. I DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE – The War on Drugs featuring Lucius
One of the finest bands making music today is The War on Drugs. Fronted by Adam Granduciel, their music is gorgeous, their lyrics intelligent, and their songs always deeply compelling. The lead single and title track from their critically acclaimed fifth album I Don’t Live Here Anymore, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” is a stunning work, with dreamy synths highlighted by shimmery guitars and Granduciel’s Bob Dylan-esque vocals, backed by the sweet harmonies of indie pop band Lucius. In fact, he mentions Dylan in the song’s lyrics that describe someone desperately trying to hold on to a relationship now in tatters: “When I think about the old days, babe, you’re always on my mind. I know it ain’t like I remember. I guess my memories run wild. Like when we went to see Bob Dylan, we danced to Desolation Row. But I don’t live here anymore. But I got no place to go.”
16. VIRUS – Vanity Fear *
Vanity Fear is an outstanding cinematic rock band from Columbus, Georgia consisting of husband and wife Brandon Diaz and Heather Gevonovich, Matt Hardy, Jeff Cobb and Kyle Netherland. Drawing on influences ranging from alt rock and metal to pop and hip hop, their music is dramatic, sweeping and harshly beautiful in ways that call to mind such bands as Evanescence, Pink Floyd, Dream Theater and Linkin Park. Since forming in 2019, the prolific band has released three full albums, an EP and several singles, including their magnificent song “Virus“, which is featured on their third album Optophobia. The song is a gorgeous soundscape of glittery synths, haunting piano keys, skittering percussion and sweeping strings, highlighted by the triple-threat of the band’s three singers Heather, Brandon and Matt, each contributing their own unique vocal textures to the mix. The song’s lyrics speak to the uncertainties of life and feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that have been laid bare by the Covid pandemic: “Everything we thought was right is wrong. Yeah it’s all broken / Everyone’s talking, nobody knows.”
The song was released in October 2020, and ranks #49 on my Top 100 of 2020, but continued climbing my chart into 2021, ultimately reaching #1 in late January. I think the song is a masterpiece, and should have been a huge hit.
17. LEVITATING – Dua Lipa featuring DaBaby
After the massive success of her 2020 dance hit “Don’t Start Now” and album Future Nostalgia, beautiful English singer-songwriter Dua Lipa scored one of the biggest hits of 2021 with “Levitating”. Incorporating the music styles of 1970s disco, 1980s funk and 1990s pop, the song has been described as electro-disco, nu-disco and pop-funk, with dance-pop, power pop and space rock elements. But whatever you want to call it, “Levitating” is pure, unbridled joy from start to finish. With numerous outer space references, the lyrics describe the idea of “levitating” when falling in love: “My love is like a rocket, watch it blast off. And I’m feeling so electric, dance my ass off.” Several versions of the song were released, the most successful being the remix with rapper DaBaby (though later controversy over homophobic comments he made at a July concert caused Billboard to replace their remix with Dua Lipa’s solo album version on the Hot 100 chart). Despite peaking only at #2 on the Hot 100, Billboard named “Levitating” the number one song of 2021.
18. THE BANDIT – Kings of Leon
I’ve been a long-time fan of Nashville foursome Kings of Leon, and have loved every song I’ve ever heard by them. “The Bandit” is no exception, and I was immediately drawn to its exhilirating guitar-driven melody and lead singer Caleb Followill’s beautiful distinctive vocals. Released in January 2021, “The Bandit” was the lead single from their eighth album When You See Yourself, which the band also released in the form of an NFT (non-fungible token), a type of cryptocurrency containing unique assets such as music and art. They were the first band to do so for a new album. Though When You See Yourself is the band’s most personal one yet from a lyrical standpoint, Caleb Followill stated in an interview with British newspaper The Sun that “The Bandit” is entirely fictional. “It’s got an old Western vibe, about an old bounty hunter. And he’s out to catch a criminal. They’ve developed an admiration for one another. One is the yin and the other is the yang. And so they spend their whole lives chasing each other. It is a never-ending game of hide-and-seek and it defines their life.“
19. BREATHE – Ships Have Sailed
Los Angeles-based alternative pop-rock duo Ships Have Sailed, comprised of vocalist/guitarist Will Carpenter and drummer Art Andranikyan, are one of my favorite indie acts. They’ve released quite a bit of music over the past eight years or so, and have been on a creative streak since the beginning of 2019. I love many of their songs, several of which I’ve featured on this blog, but one of the best of them is “Breathe”. The first of four singles they released in 2021, it’s a beautiful song of optimism and strength, and a deeply personal one for Will. He was inspired to write it after reflecting back on his own dysfunctional family and difficult upbringing, as well as the incredible resilience people have shown throughout the Covid pandemic. The song urges us to step back and take a deep breath, face our personal demons and traumas with a clear head and the belief that we can – and will – get through this. Musically, it starts off with a gentle, atmospheric feel, but gradually expands into a dramatic anthem with soaring strings and thunderous percussion, accompanied by Will’s beautiful, comforting vocals. The song’s fascinating animated video, created by Ben Panfil, shows characters based on Will and his wife Payal being observed by what appears to be an older version of Will.
20. HEAT WAVES – Glass Animals
I love the music of English band Glass Animals, particularly the distinctive voice of lead singer Dave Bayley. From their third album Dreamland, “Heat Waves” was released in late June 2020, and is their most successful single to date. Although it pretty quickly reached #1 in Australia, it was a sleeper hit in the U.S.. The song was released in late June 2020, but didn’t climb the U.S. charts until early in 2021, eventually peaking at #1 on the Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart, and later at #7 on the Hot 100 after the song went viral from being featured in numerous Tik Tok videos. The beautiful but melancholy song features a strong, melodic groove overlain with lush, quirky synths. Bayley has stated “Heat Waves” is generally “about loss and longing, and ultimately realising you are unable to save something“, but more specifically, the lyrics are directed at a former romantic partner, telling them that although you still care for them, you can’t give them the kind of love they want or deserve. One of my favorite lines is “I just wish that I could give you that. That look that’s perfectly unsad.”
The music video, directed by Colin Read, shows Bayley singing the song as he walks through the streets of East London pulling a wagon stacked with several TVs, and being filmed by his neighbours on their mobile phones during the Covid lockdown. He eventually arrives at a dark theater, where he sets up the TVs on a stage, which then display his bandmates playing their instruments while he finishes singing the song to an empty house. Bayley describes the video as “a love letter to live music and the culture and togetherness surrounding it.”
21. FLATLINE – Two Feet
“Flatline” was one of the songs featured on Two Feet’s outstanding concept album Max Maco is Dead Right?, and although he never officially released it as a single, he did release a terrific video for it in which he portrays Max Maco, his alter-ego for the album. I love the song so much, it became one of my favorites of 2021, and went all the way to #1 on my Weekly Top 30. The dangerously sexy song pays homage to his love for Latin culture with a mesmerizing Latin-esque melody, intense, bluesy guitar notes and vocals so fucking sensuous they raise the hairs on the back of my neck. The lyrics speak to a carnal desire so intense, he feels like he may “flatline”, a medical term indicating a person no longer having a pulse or heartbeat – in other words, dead.
22. SLEEP – The Frontier
One of my favorite indie artists is The Frontier, the music project and brainchild of singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer Jake Mimikos. Based in Fairfax County, Virginia, Jake is a talented, gracious and funny guy who I’ve grown quite fond of, both as an artist and human. Since 2015, the prolific artist has released numerous strong singles and EPs, and one of his very best is his beautiful song “Sleep”. Jake’s an excellent guitarist, and here his layered strummed and chiming guitars are so stunning, they take my breath away. He’s also quite adept at programming synths and keyboards to create lush, sparkling soundscapes, as well as layering his lovely, heartfelt vocals into a rich tapestry of harmonies. On “Sleep”, he plaintively sings of the pain and unease he feels over not knowing where he stands with another, and yearning for a little sleep to momentarily forget his troubles.
23. SATURDAY – twenty øne piløts
The second single from twenty øne piløts’ sixth album Scaled And Icy, “Saturday” is more pop-oriented than a lot of their previous music, but it’s still a sweet tune with an irresistible dance groove. I love it, and it’s their 10th song to reach #1 on my Weekly Top 30. The song is basically about forgetting one’s troubles and responsibilities when the weekend arrives, and just having fun. The song’s bridge includes an audio clip of a phone call between twenty øne piløts front man Tyler Joseph and his wife Jenna, where she encourages him to keep working on the track.
24. NEVER LOOKED BACK – The Zangwills
One of my greatest finds of 2021 was British indie rock band The Zangwills, whose exciting and melodic music is outstanding, with a maturity of songwriting and musicianship as fine as many top big-name bands around today. Though they’ve been releasing music since late 2017, I wasn’t familiar with them until their PR rep reached out to me about their single “Never Looked Back“, which I loved at first listen. The song is breathtaking, highlighted by a dramatic pulsating beat overlain with gorgeous cinematic keyboards and thunderous percussion, and punctuated throughout by piercing trill-like flourishes that raise goosebumps. Lead singer Jake Vickers’ beautiful vocals are equal parts captivating and chilling, backed by glorious soaring choruses. He passionately laments about a relationship that’s deteriorated to the point that there’s no going back, with one of my favorite lyrics of the year: “And now I see in ways I’ve never seen before. So I took that vision by the waist and I danced it to the door. And I never looked back.”
25. LIKE I USED TO – Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen
The collaborative single “Like I Used To” by American singer-songwriters Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs on this entire list. The song was written by Van Etten, who approached Olsen about doing a duet with her. In their press release for the song, Olsen stated “I’ve met with Sharon here and there throughout the years and have always felt too shy to ask her what she’s been up to or working on. The song reminded me immediately of getting back to where I started, before music was expected of me, or much was expected of me, a time that remains pure and real in my heart.” The song has a heartland rock feel, with tinkling piano keys, bold guitars and cinematic orchestration, highlighted by enchanting glockenspiel in the dramatic choruses. The combination of two powerhouse vocalists like Van Etten and Olsen was a winning formula, but shockingly, the song was not a big hit, and only peaked at #26 on the Billboard Adult Alternative Chart. It peaked at #3 on my Weekly Top 30, held back by “Stargazing” and “Devil”.
26. MISSING PIECE – Vance Joy
Though I’ve really liked Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy ever since hearing his wonderful 2014 hit “Riptide”, it took a while for his song “Missing Piece” to grow on me. But it’s such a sweet and catchy love song, it’s hard not to like it, and I eventually grew to love it. The simple and straightforward lyrics are about missing a loved one who makes you feel complete when you’re together, which Joy sings with such honest conviction that we believe him, not to mention the fact that he’s as charming as a prince. The sweet video shows him making sandwiches for himself and his wife or girlfriend, then forgetting his when he leaves to go do a show. She then sets off on foot to take his sandwich to him, finally reaching him, whereupon they hug and split the sandwich.
27. BEGGIN’ – Måneskin
One of the hottest acts to burst onto the global music scene in 2021 has been Italian rock band Måneskin. Though the beautiful foursome have been around since 2016, it was their win this past May of the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest for their song “ZITTI E BUONI” that catapulted the exciting and sexy band into superstardom. That song entered my Weekly Top 30 in mid-June, and as I write this at the end of 2021, they’ve remained on my chart every single week since then with a run of singles – “ZITTI E BUONI”, “I WANNA BE YOUR SLAVE” and “Beggin’”. “Beggin’”, their fiery remake of the 1967 Four Seasons song, has become their biggest hit in the U.S., spending 11 consecutive weeks at #1 on the Billboard Alternative Airplay chart, as well as reaching #1 on the Rock Airplay chart. It’s also been a huge hit throughout Europe, topping the charts in Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland. “Beggin’” was a top 20 hit for the Four Seasons, and was reimagined 40 years later by Norwegian hip-hop duo Madcon, who had a #1 hit with it in several European countries.
28. DIRTY – grandson
grandson is the music project and alter-ego of quirky-voiced Canadian-American singer-songwriter Jordan Edward Benjamin. Released in September 2020 on the day after National Voter Registration Day, “Dirty” is a call to arms for the people who are not doing anything at all to help change what might be happening in the country. grandson remarked to Apple Music “My songs in the past that served as a call to action have had much more of a sense of urgency, like, ‘Wake the fuck up, this is happening right now, and if you don’t do something about it, then you’re going to have to answer for your apathy.’ But with ‘Dirty,’ I was looking to recontextualize that story for somebody who might not resonate with [my past approach]. I had gone to Nashville to write, and I got to work with songwriters who encouraged me to draw inspiration from artists that I had liked growing up, but hadn’t found room for in the grandson project yet. So this is a bit of a nod to Amy Winehouse and Outkast—a sort of tongue-in-cheek retro production juxtaposed with very contemporary lyrics.” The third single from his debut album Death of an Optimist, “Dirty” is his most successful single thus far, peaking at #10 on the Billboard Alternative Airplay chart in early 2021. It peaked at #2 on my Weekly Top 30.
29. ENEMY MINE – Roadkeeper
Since forming in 2018, Texas alt-rock quartet Roadkeeper have released a string of exceptional singles, all of which I’ve loved, and several of which I’ve featured on this blog. Fronted by singer-songwriter & producer John Hetherington, Roadkeeper is completely independent and self-produced, doing their recording, producing and mixing in John’s studio, and releasing their songs on their own label Equal Temperament. Blending dreamy shoegaze and dramatic psychedelic rock with complex melodic structures, they craft lush soundscapes that are a perfect backdrop for their intelligent, socially conscious, sometimes political, and always topically relevant lyrics that give us something to think about. “Enemy Mine” is the first of two singles by them on this list, and addresses the “far right radicalization of vulnerable young people in the U.S. by white nationalist professional pundits who are fed viewers and readers by algorithms on social media and YouTube. ‘Enemy Mine’ is about the dissonance between the perceived realities of radical white supremacists and that of everyone else.”
The track opens with ominous cinematic synths that build for nearly a minute, then eventually erupts into an electrifying crescendo of wailing guitars, screaming synths and explosive percussion in the bridge, continuing through to the end of the track for a powerful climax to a gorgeous rock song. John’s striking falsetto vocals are impactful throughout. The dramatic video, produced by Robert Woodward, shows digitally-altered footage of recent political protests juxtaposed with old footage of 50’s films, atomic blasts, space exploration and scenes of the band performing the song.
30. EASY ON ME – Adele
Adele needs no introduction, and is one of the most successful music artists on the planet, with record sales exceeding 120 million. With her powerful and distinctive mezzo-soprano voice, she’s my favorite female vocalist, and her magnificent song “Rolling in the Deep” was my #1 song of the 2010s. She returned in October with “Easy on Me” her first new music in five years, following the release of her previous album 25. Like with 25 and it’s lead single “Hello”, which was released in October 2015, a month ahead of the album, “Easy On Me” was also released in October, a month ahead of her long-awaited fourth album 30. The song is a heartfelt piano ballad in which Adele addresses her nine-year-old son, explaining to him her divorce from his father and pleading with him to go ‘easy’ on her by trying to understand the pain she’s gone through herself. This is beautifully expressed in the lyrics “You can’t deny how hard I have tried. I changed who I was to put you both first. But now I give up. I had good intentions and the highest hopes. But I know right now it probably doesn’t even show. Go easy on me baby. I was still a child. I didn’t get the chance to feel the world around me. I had no time to choose what I chose to do. So go easy on me.”
31. CAN WE GO BACK – The Frontier
32. WRECKED – Imagine Dragons
33. METRONOME – Polarizer
34. 1ST TIME – Bakar
35. COLD – Chris Stapleton
36. I DON’T WANNA TALK (I JUST WANNA DANCE) – Glass Animals
37. FIRE FOR YOU – Cannons *
38. THE ANGEL OF 8TH AVE. – Gang of Youths
39. MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) – Lil Nas X
40. MY EX’S BEST FRIEND – Machine Gun Kelly with blackbear
41. INTO THE BLUE – The Joy Formidable
42. TAKE THE L – Roadkeeper
43. ALL ABOUT YOU – The Knocks featuring Foster the People
44. SEVENTEEN GOING UNDER – Sam Fender
45. ALL MY FAVORITE SONGS – Weezer
46. ROSE HIPS – Dawning
47. LET DOWN – Michigander
48. BED HEAD – Manchester Orchestra
49. FOLLOW YOU – Imagine Dragons
50. MARTYR – Oli Barton & the Movement
51. BAD DREAM – Cannons
52. THINK I’M CRAZY – Two Feet *
53. LOVE LOVE LOVE – My Morning Jacket
54. TROUBLE’S COMING – Royal Blood
55. SKIN AND BONES – Cage the Elephant
56. THEREFORE I AM – Billie Eilish
57. SAVE YOUR TEARS – The Weeknd
58. I NEED YOU – Jon Batiste
59. BE A WOMAN – DeLaurentis
60. LAST TRAIN HOME – John Mayer
61. SINNER – Young Decades
62. GOOD FRIEND – dwi
63. CAN YOU HANDLE MY LOVE?? – WALK THE MOON
64. WHAT YOU SAY – Cold War Kids
65. LOVE IN OCTOBER – Ships Have Sailed
66. SURVIVOR – Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
67. JUSTIFIED – Kacey Musgraves
68. BREAK MY BABY – Kaleo
69. THE ADULTS ARE TALKING – The Strokes
70. ZITTI E BUONI – Måneskin
71. SOFIA – Clairo
72. ALL TOO WELL (10 Minute Version) – Taylor Swift
73. AT HOME IN THE DARK – Au Gres
74. WE MET DURING THE REVOLUTION – Violet Cold
75. STOP MAKING THIS HURT – Bleachers
76. SHAME SHAME – Foo Fighters
77. BETTER – Michigander
78. DISTORTED LIGHT BEAM – Bastille
79. ESTELLA – Kenny Hoopla featuring Travis Barker
80. YOUR POWER – Billie Eilish
81. WAITING ON A WAR – Foo Fighters
82. CRAWLING KINGSNAKE – The Black Keys
83. HYPOTHETICALS – Lake Street Dive
84. LEAVE ME ALONE – I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME
85. TYPHOONS – Royal Blood
86. BITTER TASTE – Billy Idol
87. SOLAR POWER – Lorde
88. COME FIND ME BACK – Philip Morgan Lewis
89. EVERY WINDOW IS A MIRROR – Joywave
90. STARTS WITH YOU – Shimmer Johnson
91. NOTHING2 – Strange Souvenirs
92. BLACK DAYS – Amongst Liars
93. TALK TO ME – Bealby Point
94. BROKEN PEOPLE – almost monday
95. TIME TRAVELER – Matt Jaffe
96. COLORADO – Milky Chance
97. STICKY – The Maine
98. PATCHWERK – Sub Urban with Two Feet
99. BEAUTIFUL DISGUISE – Melotika
100. I LIKE IT WEIRD – Express Office Portico
23 thoughts on “Top 100 Songs of 2021”
That my friend is a helluva list. I don’t think I could ever do 100 of anything. I would agree on some, but most of these I don’t know if I ever heard.
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Thanks John. This post took me a few days to write. Check out some of the songs you don’t know; you may find a few you like.
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I will try some of them. Thanks.
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I just added your list to Spotify and taking it for a spin while I work on stuff. Thanks for sharing your musical finds with the world 🙂 Have a lovely New Year! By the way, sorry that I never followed up with you about meeting up for coffee. Hopefully, this year we can try again. 🙂
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Thank you for reading and listening Michelle. Happy New Year to you & hubby as well. I’m as guilty as you re: not making plans to meet up, but yes, we’ll make it happen in 2022.
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Cheers to 2022🥂
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I am amazed. This must have taken a long time to write up. Thank you for all the work you put in and for the playlist too. ❤️
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It took me many hours over several days to write, so I greatly appreciate your acknowledgement and support.
I could never do that. I admire you for your reviews. ❤️
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holy cow! youve been busy. great list and great job. more songs i recognised than I expected and many I’ll have to check out.
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Thanks Drew. Yes, I have been busy, between Christmas and writing this post!
First of all, congrats on what sounds like an enormous exercise to pick 100 tunes out of more than 1,000 songs. Not to mention ranking them – wow, I can’t even rank two friggin’ tunes! 🙂
Second, yes, it’s amazing how different year-end lists can be. While as you know I’ve also listened to and have posted about new music throughout the year, both my initial universe of 220 something songs I reviewed as part of my “Best of What’s New” feature and the 40 that ended up on my list are mostly different from your picks. In fact, the only direct overlap I saw are “Mine Forever” by Lord Huron and “Crawling Kingsnake” by the Black Keys – both tunes I love!
I also reviewed the first Michigander song on your list, as well as the Adele and John Mayer tunes in my “Best of What New” series. That’s it, brother! 🙂
Obviously, our different lists reflect different music tastes. While I’m “willing” to look at new music, I can’t deny I still do it through my ’60s and ’70s lens, my two favorite decades in music. As such, I get pretty excited about groups like Dirty Honey and Greta Van Fleet who embrace a classic rock sound, or a blues artist like Sue Foley, or Aaron Frazer whose amazing falsetto reminds me of Curtis Mayfield.
But that’s the beauty of music. It comes in so many different flavors, so tastes can be very different. What we do share is a passion for music, and that’s a beautiful thing. I certainly look forward to continuing to read your posts – and getting exposed to a lot of music I usually don’t listen to!
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Thanks Christian. Yes, it seems no two people have the same tastes when it comes to music, which is why there’s a niche for just about every artist and band. Happy listening, and thanks for supporting my blog.
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That’s a big effort – 100 songs. The original version of Levitating would have made my top songs last year, and I have a lot of time for Driver’s License and I Don’t Live Here Anymore.
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Jeff, as usual you astound me. Your yearly lists are simply amazing. I can’t even imagine the time and energy involved. Way beyond my capabilities. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you do for the indie music scene. Hopefully in the new year I can continue to poach some of your illustrious finds. Love you brother. Have a happy and healthy New Year. Stay safe.
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Thank you for your very kind and generous words Ralph, as well as your continued support of me and my blog. Happy New Year to you and your loved ones.
As always Jeff, an impressive list of songs curated by you. Many of these songs I hadn’t even heard. You’ve just cluttered up my new playlist with some great tunes. Happy new year my friend.
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Thank you Robert. I hope you find some new songs to enjoy. Wishing you a happy and healthy new year too!
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This is a pretty good list and an outstanding post, as usual. I, for one, know pretty well how time consuming this could be. Kudos to you, Jeff!
P.S.: Happy New Year!
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Happy New Year Horacio, and thanks for acknowledging the immense amount of work that went into this post.
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Finding loads of new stuff to dive into on this list.
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Splendid! Thanks Luke.